OCTOBER IS LGBTQ+ HISTORY MONTH
Words by Ellen Bluestein
October 1st marks the start of LGBTQ+ History Month across the country. Founded in 1994 by Missouri high school history teacher Rodney Wilson, LGBTQ+ History Month celebrates the achievements of the LGBTQ+ community as well as the history of gay rights in America and honors those who are role models in the movement. Established in conjunction with Coming Out Day (October 11), the observance builds community, champions LGBTQ+ causes, and makes a civil rights statement about the important contributions the LGBTQ+ community has made in ameliorating human rights.
According to the Equality Forum, the non-profit organization whose mission is to advance LGBTQ+ civil rights nationally and internationally, the LGBTQ+ community is the only community worldwide that is not taught its history at home, in public schools, or in religious institutions.
In Palm Springs, LGBTQ+ History Month is not as widely observed as in other cities around the country as it precedes Pride Weekend. “Unfortunately, here in Palm Springs, we don't do a lot because our Pride is the first weekend of November so we're kind of overwhelmed with getting ready for that,” said David Gray, co-founder of the LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert. “But there are organizations who do some [LGBTQ+ History Month programming], if they're not terribly involved in Pride.”
That doesn’t make LGBTQ+ History Month any less meaningful. “It’s important because people continually come out whether they're older or whether they're younger. and they don’t really know a lot of the history,” said Gray. “I think it's interesting and important for us to not forget what people did to make the Palm Springs area as the welcoming place it is for gays and lesbians. It didn't always used to be that way.”
While books have been written about Palm Springs LGBTQ+ history including Palm Springs Babylon: Sizzling Stories from the Desert Playground of the Stars, A City Comes Out: How Celebrities Made Palm Springs a Gay and Lesbian Paradise, and Dinah! Three Decades of Sex, Golf, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Gray finds them inaccurate as they are based on rumors and innuendo and not facts. “There's no documentation,” Gray said. “It's just one person's opinions and stories of people in Palm Springs the way they wanted to see it, the way they heard it, or...embellished a bit to make a better story.”
The mission of the LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert is to collect, preserve and share the LGBTQ+ history of the Greater Palm Springs Area within the Coachella Valley. “We live in a community where people constantly move here or travel here, and they didn't really grow up here and they haven't been involved in the community and don't really know who these individuals are and what they did,” said Gray. “And it's really hard to rebuild because people don't think about keeping their history.”
A pivotal moment of that history is, of course, the AIDS epidemic. “When the AIDS crisis came, that affected a lot of the residents who had moved here from other places,” said Gray. “Things like Desert AIDS Project and Desert Regional Medical Center began treating people.” They [Desert Regional Medical Center] opened an AIDS ward and then an AIDS hospice. All those kinds of things became much more public, and people began to try to figure out what to do about it, just like they did everywhere in the country.”
“Two of our famous residents -- Liberace and Rock Hudson -- impacted AIDS nationwide and worldwide,” Gray added. Their homosexuality wasn’t acknowledged until just prior to or after their deaths but they had been long associated with Palm Springs. After they both died, people like Elizabeth Taylor and others began AIDS foundations which gained national attention. “AIDS got on the radar and that forced the Reagan administration to begin to acknowledge it,” Gray said. “Doris Day was a very good friend of Rock Hudson, and she was known to Middle America. Before that, I don't think Middle America really thought they knew anyone [with AIDS]. They just thought that this is a bunch of people in New York and San Francisco getting sick.”
At Desert AIDS Project (now DAP Health), a group of grass-roots volunteers joined together in 1984 to respond to this never-before-seen disease. While the government and the health care system initially ignored the growing crisis, DAP Health stepped in and began implementing programs and services to support those in the Coachella Valley affected by HIV and AIDS. Over the years, as testing and treatment became available, DAP Health continued to grow and adapt to meet the changing needs of its clients. Today, it is a federally qualified health center whose goal is to improve the overall health of the entire community, especially the disenfranchised, by providing comprehensive, culturally competent, quality primary and preventative health care services.
DAP Health continues to add to the rich legacy of Palm Springs’ LGBTQ+ History. A history that is now proudly and properly being preserved by the LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert so that the valley residents can understand the extent of the contributions and impact made by the members of the LGBTQ+ community in making Palm Springs what it is today.